The Global Compact was initially launched with nine Principles. June 24, 2004, during the first Global Compact Leaders Summit, Kofi Annan announced the addition of the tenth principle against corruption in accordance with the United Nations Convention against Corruption adopted in 2003.
Principle 1: Support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; and
Principle 2: Make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.
Businesses should uphold:
Principle 4: the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor;
Principle 5: the effective abolition of child labor; and
Principle 6: the elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation.
Principle 7: support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges;
Principle 8: undertake initiatives to promote environmental responsibility; and
Principle 9: encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.
The Global Compact is not a regulatory instrument, but rather a forum for discussion and a network for communication including governments, companies and labor organizations, whose actions it seeks to influence, and civil society organizations, representing its stakeholders. The Compact says that once companies declared their support for the principles "This does not mean that the Global Compact recognizes or certifies that these companies have fulfilled the Compact’s principles."
The Compact's goals are intentionally flexible and vague, but it distinguishes the following channels through which it provides facilitation and encourages dialogue: policy dialogues, learning, local networks and projects.
The first Global Compact Leaders Summit, chaired by the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was held in UN Headquarters in New York on June 24, 2004, to bring "intensified international focus and increased momentum" to the Compact. On the eve of the conference, delegates were invited to attend the first Prix Ars Electronica Digital Communities award ceremony, which was co-hosted by a representative from the UN.
The second Global Compact Leaders Summit, chaired by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was held on 5–6 July 2007 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. It adopted the Geneva Declaration on corporate responsibility.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the Compact's launch, the Global Compact Leaders Summit 2010 took place on 24–25 June 2010 in New York. On the occasion, the Blueprint for Corporate Sustainability Leadership identifying leadership criteria linked to implementation of the ten principles, efforts to support development objectives, and engagement in the Global Compact was released. The document was supported by Foundation Guilé.
In 2001, the City of Melbourne proposed that cities as well as corporations should be allowed to join the UN Global Compact, arguing that this would provide a clear statement of a city's commitment to positive change, as well as motivating participation in international dialogue. The proposal was accepted, and the UN Global Compact Cities Program was launched in 2002. It was formed as an urban-focused component of the Global Compact with its International Secretariat initially located in Melbourne, Australia. The aim of the program is to improve urban life in cities throughout the world.
Melbourne became the first city to engage the Global Compact in June 2001. There are, as of 2013, over 80 member cities in the program.
In April 2003, under the directorship of David Teller, a framework called the Melbourne Model was developed that went beyond the Ten Principles. It begins by drawing the resources of government, business and civil society into a cross-sector partnership in order to develop a practical project that addresses a seemingly intractable urban issue. In 2007, the current Director, Paul James (2007–present) and his colleagues Dr Andy Scerri and Dr Liam Magee, took this methodology further by integrating the partnership model with a four-domain sustainability framework called 'Circles of Sustainability'.
In 2007, the Secretariat moved from the Committee For Melbourne to the Global Cities Institute at RMIT University, itself affiliated with UN-HABITAT. There, projects associated with city-based responses to global climate change and globalization have become increasingly important. The Melbourne Model was further elaborated, with a sustainability indicators program developed as a way of assessing and monitoring progress. In 2012, the Circles of Sustainability method was elaborated to guide a city or urban region through a rigorous assessment process. As one of the outcomes it provides a figurative image of the overall sustainability of that city to illustrate its strengths and weaknesses.